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Awesome, Girls!

A mentoring program at St. Mark's Community Center helps teenage girls cope with adolescence and post-Katrina stresses.

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Somewhere between child and adult, like weeds pushing their way up through cracks in the sidewalk, adolescents fight for space to grow. In New Orleans, that fight has been intensified by poverty, problems at home, exposure to negative media, and the extreme sense of insecurity brought about during Hurricane Katrina's evacuation.

Fortunately for some teens, there are places, people and programs trying to ease that path to adulthood. The Awesome Girls Mentoring Program at St. Mark's Community Center, under the direction of James Rogers, has been doing its part to help teenage girls grow into womanhood since 1999. In New Orleans' post-Katrina environment, those efforts are more important than ever.

SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD KELLY WILLIAMS personifies the future of New Orleans. A willowy girl who likes to dance, she dreams of dancing professionally -- or she might become a veterinarian. Like the other members of the Awesome Girls program, Kelly likes to laugh and hang out with her friends at St. Mark's.

Although she's happy to be back in New Orleans, Kelly now lives in an unfamiliar neighborhood across town from where she grew up. She has just started her sophomore year at McMain High School, where she doesn't know anyone. Since her return, St. Mark's has provided a place for Kelly to see longtime friends and maintain some semblance of normalcy.

Like many teenagers, Kelly doesn't telegraph her thoughts. But the intensity of her reflections became evident in a journal that she produced as part of a writing workshop sponsored by the Awesome Girls program (with the aim of publishing excerpts in Gambit Weekly). Beginning slowly and awkwardly, Kelly and four other "peer mentors" at St. Mark's initially joined the workshop because they are accustomed to taking on additional responsibilities. It's part of their routine as peer mentors. Eventually, they became drawn to the computers at the public library, and some of them worked into the night pouring their emotions into their journals.

Kelly sums up the feelings of most of the Awesome Girls in this entry:

This summer I have done more things with St. Mark's. I really like writing because I can say what I want. Also, this year I am in a different neighborhood and I am just learning about that area — where everything is and how to get from this place to that place. I mean, I think it's good to be in a different area that you don't know too well, so you can learn more about it.

I think this summer I have really learned to sit down and think about who I am and where I am going. As you know, not everybody stays the same for a long time.

Fourteen-year-old Brione Walker is a savvy and articulate girl whose dimpled smile radiates the confidence in debate that may one day help her achieve her goal of becoming a politician. Her friends like to dream about Brione being the first female president. Brione, an independent thinker, feels acutely the normal teenage growing pains:

Now that I'm older I feel that my parents are afraid of me because they don't know how to reach out to me. I can hardly get along with my mom and my daddy only really knows me as his seven-year old that used to be into Barbie dolls or Barney.

ST. MARK'S DIRECTOR JAMES ROGERS, former director of St. Bernard youth programs and an adolescent psychologist, explains that teens in the "middle phase" of adolescence often try to assume more power over their own lives. "The goal is a good goal," he says, noting that the problem for some is how they go about achieving it. "A negative way to achieve power would be to rebel; a positive way would be toward achieving independence by being responsible."

At 14, Brione, who has been in the program for six years, both denies and typifies Rogers' observations:

People really don't understand teenagers, but they try to, and then they have this funny idea that we are just going through a phase. Parents think that their children should come to them because they have all the answers. But no one really has all the answers.

It's a "new millennium," say the girls, and adults just don't understand. Some of their complaints are familiar: the language has changed; they need more spending money because of inflation. But most of their issues are much more complex, such as socio-economic problems that pre-dated Katrina or a heightened, storm-induced sense of insecurity that New Orleans teenagers face.

During Katrina, Brione went to the Morial Convention Center with her family. Of that experience, she wrote:

When we first arrived we were on the ground at gunpoint by the police, because somebody started shooting. My sisters and I were so scared to see somebody we trusted to keep us safe hold us at gunpoint like we were animals.

People hadn't bathed in awhile and they had on the same clothes. They were really looking bad; their hair was all over their heads and their clothes had stains on them. The elderly and some infants hadn't had their diapers changed in awhile. It was so sad, but I was all right. My parents guarded my sister and me the whole time we were there. They took shifts watching us.

Later on, CNN came to the Convention Center to find out why we were there and what was going on. As soon as they came, people started yelling for help and crying because no one came out to help us yet.

When word got out about CNN being there, some of the staff and the police said there were dead babies and little girls in the freezers of the Convention Center. I was afraid that my sisters or I were next. It all came to the point that we were not protected; we didn't know whom to trust.

Daranell Lyons, a 16-year-old whose soft voice hides a strong will, is another peer mentor in the Awesome Girls program. Her love of dolphins has led her to aspire to be a marine biologist. "Peer mentors have a certain standard to follow," says Daranell, who takes her responsibilities seriously.

Daranell and her family evacuated initially to the Hotel Monteleone, where her sense of responsibility was tested at one point:

Teenagers that were over 14 were called in to help with the younger children. One day somebody went crazy. A man came in the hotel and the police had to come in and get him out. He was armed; he had a little pocketknife. He was not a major threat to anyone because he was drunk, but I was still worried about the kids. I had six little kids with me between ages four and six. They started crying and I was like, "Be quiet. Be quiet." He was talking about, "Shut up. Shut up." And I was like, "Don't come by me and mess with these children, because I'm gonna have to hurt you."

Dariel Ross fled to Houston with her mother and sister in the face of Katrina. She ultimately wants to go into medicine -- and at 13, she already has had her share of hospital experience. While contending with her own severe asthma and an ulcer, she also helps take care of her sister Tra-Chel, who has microcephaly, which has left her mentally and physically disabled.

Those hardships don't diminish the sisters' vitality. "Even though she can't talk, we talk by sounds and expressions," Dariel says of Tra-Chel. "We act like real people because we have fights and arguments and get mad at each other. We have the same attitude; we get that from our mom. We don't tolerate nothing from nobody."

That "attitude" likewise found its way into her writing.

The Red Cross was only focusing on people in the Astrodome and Convention Center, but not people living with family members. We needed stuff for my sister; she was getting ready to die. She was on a certain formula, Peptamen Jr. , and no one would give it to her even though we called the hospitals and the Astrodome.

We were scared. My sister got sick and she had diarrhea, so we put her on Pedialyte water and she stayed on that until we called the 1-800 number off the can and they sent one case, which lasted six days.

We would try to make appointments and no one would give us one without Texas Medicaid. But getting Medicaid would have meant we would have been in trouble once we got back here. Finally, we found our Metairie supplier and they shipped us the milk to Houston.

Many of the girls' insecurities arose from experiences in new schools, where, as often as not, they were made to feel unwelcome.

D'Joire Matthews, 16, felt stigmatized in her temporary "home" in Pineville after the storm.

While I was living in New Orleans, I was used to a big environment with a lot of friends from school and St. Mark's. But when the hurricane came that changed everything. I lost touch with all of my friends. It took months for me to find out where everybody was at.

In Pineville, it was hard for me to make new friends. I felt like a complete stranger. When I first started school I had to wear regular clothes since I didn't have a uniform. I was becoming homesick and I missed all of my friends. I thought I was the only New Orleans kid there, but there were about 110 of us there. So most of my friends were from New Orleans.

Some kids called the New Orleans kids, "Hey! New Ocean." Since they found out we had FEMA money to get back on our feet, they'd be like, "You still living off of FEMA? Give me $50 or $100."

A calm mentor who gravitates towards adults and loves to engage in conversation, DŽJoire often spends her time crocheting and teaching the other girls her hobby. Right now she is teaching herself to knit as well. If she fulfills her dream, those dexterous hands will one day perform surgeries.

Kelly Williams liked her temporary school in Houston, but she was keenly aware of hostility toward the "New Orleans people."

Where I lived, the people were busting the New Orleans people's windows, and they would write on the car: "F— New Orleans. It's Houston town. Go back." Girl, let me tell you, they were crazy where we lived. I mean, to me they were defensive, because we were there and they thought we were going to take over. They called us "The New Orleans people," or "The New Orleans girls or boys.'' I know that is where we came from, but that wasn't our name.

The girls in Houston were also aware of negative media attention. "It seemed as though after the federal government ran out of money they were ready to kick us out," says Dariel.

NOW HOME IN NEW ORLEANS, THE GIRLS deal with issues that range from negative portrayals of African-American youth in the media to perceptions of police and their relationship with the black community.

"Some of the things that people did were not too good. But that is all they would put in the newspaper," Kelly says about how the media portray African-American youth. "I mean, it's bad enough we have to deal with it, even if it's not us."

Brione, who saw a man shot, has been reassessing her opinion of law enforcement since the storm:

It changed my whole outlook on police. They shot innocent people. This man was waiving the police down in front of us. He was regular, like everybody else, an older African American. They thought he had something in his hand, and they just shot him. When they realized what happened they didn't even like, "oh, my God, let me try to help this man."

It doesn't make it harder for me to obey authority, but it makes me think twice about when they stop people and when they call themselves protecting us. I have to look at them and think: "deep down inside, do I trust this person with my life like I used to trust them when I was a kid?"

Daranell, remembering the armed man in Hotel Monteleone, disagrees. She was grateful for the police presence during the storm.

Nicole Mills-Malloy, an adult mentor at the Awesome Girls program, believes that people often underestimate kids' awareness of events. She says that political and police corruption in New Orleans has made local youth distrustful of authority figures. She says the message kids get from the TV is that the city is "wasting their time on them." According to Mills-Malloy, "even kids that have never been in trouble get that same signal."

Right now, the Awesome Girls program occupies the only room being used inside the three-story community center. Its hallways, covered in pictures of African-American icons and kids' art, once echoed with the sounds of children's footsteps, laughter and running. Walls that have provided sanctuary for thousands of youths over the years are now patiently -- and silently -- waiting until the building is renovated.

The staff at St. Marks couldn't wait to get started again after Katrina. While evacuated in Arizona, Rogers used his cell phone to resume the mentoring program. His persistence in tracking down the girls, his ability to raise money from public as well as private sources, and a dedicated staff all helped Rogers resurrect the Awesome Girls program this summer.

Before the storm, St. Mark's, a nonprofit run by the global division of the United Methodist Church, received the bulk of its money from private sources, says "Coach" Jeffery Parker, head of youth services for the past eight years. "At one time St. Mark's received money from the city," says Parker, "but when [Mayor Ray] Nagin first got elected to the mayor's office, they said they didn't have the funds." Many of the resources that existed before the hurricane have either dried up or been re-allocated.

So many kids wandered into St. Marks this summer, either looking for a summer program or hoping to play basketball in the gym, that the center had to keep the front gate locked. That's the "sad part," says Parker.

In addition to an after-school program, which helped more than 300 kids last fall, St. Mark's gym was open to anyone who wanted to drop in and shoot hoops. The only requirement was that kids leave behind colors or headscarves denoting neighborhood or territorial affiliations. Parker's goal was simply "bringing all kids together no matter where they were from. They knew when they came to St. Mark's they would be treated as equals."

Years ago, Parker noticed that even after graduating from high school, many kids continued to play basketball at St. Mark's. "Once they graduated they felt like they'd done all of everything. That was it," Parker says. To encourage them further, he began counseling the kids, even driving them around to check out colleges and universities, in which several of them have since enrolled.

At St. Mark's, the line between personal and professional often blurs. For example, Rogers spends many hours each month answering more than 200 phone calls from parents seeking advice and wanting to talk about child rearing. Many of the girls are being raised by single mothers, the result of what Rogers calls the "negative generational cycle" of kids having kids.

Rather than placing the blame for troubled teenagers solely on their parents, Rogers believes in counseling the entire family. "They both need resources, not condemnation," he says. "Accept what the problem is -- now what are we going to do to fix it?"

KAMILI JOHNSON JOINED THE AWESOME Girl's Mentoring Program in the fifth grade. "I had a father, but not here with me," says Johnson. "This program offered me a father to talk to when I needed it -- and someone to show me that they're here for me."

Johnson, who is now 19 and a sophomore at Southeastern Louisiana University, returned to work at St. Mark's this summer. "I also was in this program because I had a really bad attitude toward anyone who didn't understand where I was coming from," she admits. "I stayed in this program because I was on the right track and I wanted to stay that way. I want to be the one who came back and showed the young girls that there is hope."

"It's bad here," Mills-Malloy says of New Orleans post-Katrina. But, she says, St. Marks offers kids choices -- "It gives them an out."

Mills-Malloy is living proof that mentoring programs work. Growing up in Portland, Ore., Mills-Malloy was raised in a strong single-parent home and participated in a program similar to Awesome Girls. She was taken under the wing of a man she now considers to be her "uncle," though he's not a blood relation.

"He's the only father I ever had in my life," says Mills-Malloy. "I don't really know how I would be different because he was always there. He gave me advice even when I didn't ask for advice, which I guess is what a father does." Like Rogers and Parker, Mills-Malloy's "uncle" devoted endless time, energy and personal resources to exposing the kids to alternative environments, including taking them to see The Nutcracker, a memory she still treasures.

Surrounded by drugs and violence throughout her youth, Mills-Malloy understands the value of self-esteem. "My mom always made me feel like I was worth something," she says. That feeling, the influence of her uncle, and a strong desire to give back to the community led her to become a mentor at age 14. Today, Mills-Malloy is going back to Portland to complete her Master's in social work.

LIKE ALL OF NEW ORLEANS, THE AWE- some Girls program has experienced difficulty since Katrina. Because many of the girls have not yet returned to New Orleans, Rogers recently recruited seven new members.

"It's kind of difficult, because we have to try to tell the new girls how it ran," says Dariel. "We have to try to explain it to them, then they get an attitude if we try to tell them."

Recent growing pains combined with all the other problems faced by local teens caused conflicts recently between some of the girls and Rogers. Several of the girls said he was out of touch with their generation, while others resented his frequent advice. Rogers demands complete attention while he is speaking, and sometimes the girls tire of his unflagging demand for respect.

For his part, Rogers remained calm and firm during that difficult period. "They needed to know that they could be mad at me and that I wasn't going to run away," he says. Rogers built the Awesome Girls program on four guiding principles -- relationship with community, relationship with family, relationship with school and relationship with self -- in an effort to teach girls to achieve on several layers without conflict. "Ultimately," says Rogers, "we talk about conflict with yourself."

By cultivating decision-making and communication abilities, he hopes to help the girls contend with difficult choices that confront them every day. For example, though the program teaches abstinence, "they have information on both, meaning condoms, birth control, all of that," says Rogers. "We don't advocate it, but we let them know it exists so they have the opportunity to make informed choices."

Many difficulties arise in the course of working with teens, from thoughts of suicide to the incarceration of a child's family member. Recently, Rogers found an art therapist and a social worker who will provide individual therapy to the 16 girls in the program. He takes no credit, saying it's all up to God.

The success of the Awesome Girls program is evident from the results of their writing program. One of Kelly's entries captured the resilience of the girls and offered a tonic for the city they love:

We do love New Orleans, but it really doesn't show in the way we are treating it. New Orleans is a very different city from any other, but a good different. Well, that's the way I see it.

Clarification
In our cover story last week, "Memory of the Flood," the story and a photo caption may have given the impression that a 200-foot grain barge that landed in the Lower Ninth Ward caused one of the breaches in the Industrial Canal floodwall. That was not the intention of the writer. The story noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' own study concluded that defective engineering and construction by the Corps caused the floodwalls to breach on several drainage canals.

For more on the breach, see the National Science Foundation-sponsored Independent Levee Investigation Team's final report (July 31), which states that the barge likely "slipped it moorings and was eventually drawn in through a breach that was already well developed." (www.ce.berkeley.edu/new_orleans).

Peer mentor Daranell Lyons, 16, shows Awesome - Girls (l-r) Ebony Thompson, 9, and Stevanaa - Bentley, 10, the proper hand position in a dance - as fellow peer mentors D'Joire Matthews and - Dariel Ross practice their moves. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Peer mentor Daranell Lyons, 16, shows Awesome Girls (l-r) Ebony Thompson, 9, and Stevanaa Bentley, 10, the proper hand position in a dance as fellow peer mentors D'Joire Matthews and Dariel Ross practice their moves.

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